Call it the primary before the primary.
The 2016 presidential race in South Carolina has focused so far on candidates going to fundraisers and town-hall meetings. But White House hopefuls also are doing something that might be more important – building their Palmetto State operations in hopes of capturing an early primary win.
“It’s the talent primary,” said Chris LaCivita, who is aiding Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in South Carolina. “The focus is putting together a team in a particular state that (can build) coalitions to win.”
Some candidates – or more accurately their political-action committees – already have lined up operatives with Palmetto State ties. They include front-running Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republicans Paul, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Donald Trump.
Other candidates are cagey about their S.C. staffing at this point, notably Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Meanwhile, GOP front-runners Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have not locked up local talent.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who could be South Carolina’s first presidential candidate in three decades, has a statewide network he can lean on. The Seneca Republican, however, has not tied up all of the state’s political consultants who have worked with him previously.
“We have ultimate trust and loyalty for (Graham),” said Walter Whetsell, whose Lexington-based political consulting firm has worked for Graham’s super-PAC but is partnering with former Texas Gov. Perry in 2016. “That decision was made before Lindsey Graham came into the race.”
While a half-dozen would-be candidates already have lined up S.C. connections, longtime S.C. political consultant Warren Tompkins, who has been linked to Rubio, said match-ups between operatives and candidates actually have been a little slower than usual this year to develop.
Some top Republican operatives paid more attention to winning back control of the U.S. Senate in 2014 than lining up presidential campaign gigs for 2016, he said.
Changing campaign regulations also have slowed staff announcements, Tompkins said.
Potential candidates are using political action committees to gather as much money as possible while exploring the possibility of running. Cruz, a Republican U.S. senator from Texas, is the only major candidate from either party formally to declare a bid.
“There are so many moving parts, and the rules keep changing with decisions by the courts, (Federal Election Commission) and IRS,” Tompkins said. “It wasn’t so complicated years ago.”
The surprise of the season so far might be that Bush and Walker, who lead in recent polls of likely GOP candidates, have not announced teams for South Carolina.
Speculation why centers on Graham.
The South Carolinian’s interest in the White House could have held off immediate interest among some operatives in joining competing campaigns. It also could cool some campaigns’ interest in investing manpower and money in the senator’s home state, where Graham could win as a favorite son.
In that case, South Carolina’s GOP primary could prove to be less important than its first-in-the-South billing would warrant.
There’s precedence. Whetsell noted Mitt Romney, who won the GOP nomination in 2012 but lost the S.C. primary, did not build a large staff in the state.
Graham is working with his Senate campaign manager Scott Farmer. Longtime S.C. political consultant Richard Quinn said he also expects to be involved with a Graham campaign, as he has in the past.
The senator also has support from David Wilkins, who chairs Graham’s presidential testing-the-waters political group, Security Through Strength. In the past, Wilkins was such a strong backer of the Bush family that he was named U.S. ambassador to Canada by President George W. Bush.
The Jeb Bush and Walker campaigns said they have not hired much staff in any state yet.
Tompkins stressed patience when it comes to the lack of state-level personnel news by the GOP front-runners.
“I wouldn’t read anything into that,” he said. “They have been working under the surface. They have had their agents here on scouting missions.”
Other GOP presidential hopefuls have staffed up in South Carolina.
The S.C. directors for Carson, a retired Maryland neurosurgeon, and Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, helped lead candidates to wins during the 2012 presidential primaries. New York real-estate mogul Trump counts a former governor’s son and an influential state lawmaker on his S.C. team.
Meanwhile, former Texas Gov. Perry has been working South Carolina for a year, wrapping up Whetsell’s consulting firm and creating a trophy to given to the winner of the annual football game between the University of the South Carolina and Texas A&M, his alma mater.
Rubio’s camp appears to have tapped Tompkins to head a PAC tied to supporters of the Florida senator. Tompkins’ former partner, Terry Sullivan, works for Rubio.
Tompkins said he could not discuss his role with Rubio. “But I count myself as part of that movement.”
Democrats overall have not been as active in building formal S.C. campaign operations as Republicans at this point.
Former state Rep. Boyd Brown said former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who Brown supports, has parachuted in operatives from his political action committee during his S.C. visits but not named any local leaders.
Former S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian said staffing decisions the candidate he backs, Vice President Joe Biden, are at least a month away.
The Democratic front-runner, Clinton, has made the most noise so far.
Her backers have snagged an early supporter of President Barack Obama, former state Rep. Bakari Sellers.
The Bamberg Democrat is national millennial co-chair of the Ready for Hillary political group. He also has helped host small-dollar fundraisers for Clinton, including one at a Charleston restaurant last week.
Sellers, who lost the lieutenant governor’s race in November, said he would explore further roles with the Clinton campaign if the former first lady and secretary of state decides to run.
“I would like a chance to be a part of history — again,” Sellers said of the prospect of working for the first female president after helping the first African-American candidate win the White House.
Clinton apparently has an S.C. director for her expected run. Clay Middleton, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia, reportedly has been tapped to head her Palmetto State operations.
Middleton, who now works for the U.S. Department of Energy, said last week that he could not confirm any ties to the Clinton camp. However, he said he has attended some Ready for Hillary events.
“I suspect those running for president are talking to a lot of people,” said Middleton, another Obama campaign veteran. “Sometime this summer, there will be a lot of activity.”
2016 S.C. staffing
The political operatives and backers working in South Carolina for potential 2016 presidential candidates or political committees tied to White House prospects. Some candidates have not announced S.C. staffing, including GOP front-runners Jeb Bush and Scott Walker:
Ben Carson (R): Ruth Sherlock is expected to become his S.C. director. She was former national deputy political director for Newt Gingrich, who won the S.C. primary in 2012.
Hillary Clinton (D): Clay Middleton, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia, reportedly has been named head of Clinton’s S.C. operations.
Ted Cruz (R): His team includes: Nick Muzin, former chief of staff for North Charleston Sen. Tim Scott; Jason Miller, a strategist in Charleston Rep. Mark Sanford’s return to Congress; and LaDonna Ryggs, former Spartanburg County GOP chairwoman.
Lindsey Graham (R): Scott Farmer, Graham’s U.S. Senate campaign manager, is on board. David Wilkins, a former S.C. House speaker and U.S. ambassador to Canada, chairs Graham’s presidential testing-the-waters political group.
Mike Huckabee (R): Columbia-based Hogan Gidley is a senior communications adviser. Gidley worked for former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum during his 2012 primary campaign.
Rand Paul (R): Chris LaCivita will oversee Paul’s S.C. operations while consulting for Rand PAC. LaCivitia was chief strategist for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which worked against Democrat John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid.
Rick Perry (R): Lexington-based Starboard Communications returns after helping Perry in the 2012 race. S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson is Perry’s most high-profile backer in the state.
Marco Rubio (R): S.C. political consultant Warren Tompkins reportedly will head a political action committee tied to supporters of the U.S. senator from Florida.
Rick Santorum (R): Jon Parker has been named as S.C. director for Santorum’s PAC, Patriot Voice. Parker led Santorum's win in Tennessee’s 2012 GOP presidential primary.
Donald Trump (R): Columbia public relations executive Ed McMullen and former Spartanburg state Sen. John Russell, the son of a governor, are Trump’s state co-chairs. State Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, will be a political adviser.